Nigeria on defensive over ‘terror breeding ground
Lagos--While Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab remains in a Detroit prison cell accused of trying to kill the passengers and crew of Northwest Airlines Flight 253, officials in his homeland insist the episode does not point to a wider malaise.
But terrorism experts say the Christmas Day plot, foiled when the chemical explosives stitched in Abdulmutallab’s underpants failed to explode properly, will inevitably lead to closer surveillance of Africa’s most populous nation.
Although Abdulmutallab hails from the capital Abuja, much of the focus is on the mainly-Muslim north where 12 states operate Sharia law and which has been the scene of a number of anti-government uprisings by hardline Islamists.
Geoff Porter, an Africa expert for the New York-based Eurasia thinktank, said mass clashes last July between the Nigerian security forces and a group known as Boko Haram had raised "active concerns about jihadi sympathizers" in the north among Western intelligence which were bound to be heightened now.
"The Nigerian angle to the Detroit plot will undoubtedly increase US counterterrorism efforts in sub-Saharan Africa," Porter said in a new report.
Porter said that while intelligence operations in the region had been "slowly gathering steam", they had so far lacked sufficient clout.
"The Detroit attack will give it widespread political support throughout Washington that it has thus far lacked," he said.
The official line from the Nigerian government is that, for all its problems, it does not deserve to be associated with terrorism.
"One thing that I can tell you that we are not known for as Nigerians is terrorism," said Information Minister Dora Akunyili.
"We are not into terrorism; we may have several issues but definitely not terrorism. Our country abhors it."
Ever since independence in 1960, Nigeria has been blighted by bloody clashes between ethnic and religious groups — Sunni Muslims against Shiites, Christians against Muslims.
A Christian senior government official, who asked not to be named, insisted the concept of martyrdom was alien to Nigerians and said that Abdulmutallab had been radicalised during time spent in countries such as Yemen.
"We are ‘survivalists’, we donot have this kamikaze spirit of God’s fools," said the official.
"This young man, all that he has learnt and has launched him into extremism were picked up from abroad," he added.
Others however say the government is in denial.
"There are terrorists in Nigeria and we have told the Nigerian government about it," the secretary-general of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) in northern states, Reverend Saidu Dogo, told AFP.
The West African nation of 150 million is almost evenly divided between Muslims and Christians.
The majority of Muslims live in the north where often grinding poverty has proved fertile ground for radical Islamists.
Boko Haram, whose name means "Western education is a sin", attracted thousands of followers who staged a series of attacks in the north last July which were eventually put down by the authorities after hundreds of deaths.
The Nigeria Democratic Liberty Forum said the government should never have allowed such an environment to fester, saying the country’s reputation was at a new low after already being tarnished by "shameful deeds like fraud and corruption".
"One can imagine the danger posed by millions of neglected, unemployed, impressionable Nigerians that the Nigerian system has failed and could be target for terrorism recruits," the pro-democracy pressure group wrote in the Lagos-based Guardian daily, calling Abdulmutallab’s arrest a "wake-up call".
AFP/ Jacques Lhuillery/ Expatica